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Science, food and society


Barbara Gallani, Head of Communication Engagement and Cooperation department at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), explains its current initiatives to improve openness and transparency by promoting stakeholder participation in its activities.

The influence of scientific research is evident in all aspects of modern life, and the relationship between science and society is becoming increasingly complex.

Scientific and technological developments in the agri-food sector are affected and shaped by politics and public opinion, as well as moral and cultural values. Science can be mistrusted; discussions about risks are often politicised and values can sometimes create a barrier to accepting scientific evidence.

Some citizens take great interest in the work of scientific organisations and in policy making. There is a legitimate expectation that different views should be listened to and that the development of policies should be based on science and evidence and should involve transparent participation by anyone with an interest.

One example is the ongoing debate around pesticides, which arouses strong feelings on all sides. More than 1.3 million Europeans signed a petition demanding that glyphosate, one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world, be banned on the grounds that it posed ‘a serious threat to human health’ and that ‘its negative impacts on the environment and biodiversity are clearly documented’. The debate has highlighted increased expectations from public bodies regarding transparency and participation.

Another polarised discussion has been focused on Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to harden plastic, which is found in a number of products, such as plastic drinking containers and food cans. In animal studies, BPA imitates the effects of oestrogen. This has generated questions about whether animal studies are relevant to humans, and some scientists and consumers suggest that human exposure to BPA should be reduced.

The European Commission and other EU bodies are willing to listen to citizens’ views and concerns on scientific, technological and policy developments. More can be done, but many initiatives are underway. For example, the European Commission recently submitted a proposal to the Council and the Parliament, to improve the transparency of scientific studies used in the risk assessment of food and food products.

The European Commission and other EU bodies are willing to listen to citizens’ views and concerns on scientific, technological and policy developments.

The European Commission’s proposal on transparency

Under this proposal, citizens would have greater access to the information submitted to EFSA for the risk assessment of products to be used in the agri-food chain.

The Commission’s proposal represents a good opportunity to adapt the EU’s General Food Law, which is now 15 years old, to today’s needs. The proposal includes:

• All studies and documents submitted to EFSA for risk assessment purposes should be made public on EFSA’s website. Exceptions would be granted on well-founded legal grounds.

• Public consultations to be held on the studies submitted.

• Establishment of a register of commissioned studies, which would allow EFSA to verify whether an applicant has shared all studies at its disposal.

• The Commission would have the possibility, in exceptional cases, to mandate EFSA to conduct additional studies for review purposes.

This would be a big step towards transparency and could contribute to bridging a perceived gap between risk assessment and society.

Scientists and science communicators need to be more aware of how context, language and cognitive biases can influence the communication process.

EFSA’s initiatives on transparency and openness

Openness and transparency are fundamental values for EFSA; they are enshrined in its founding regulation and feature prominently in its strategy to 2020. These values are translated into EFSA’s efforts to make available all data used in its risk assessments and to facilitating engagement with stakeholders.

Making data available

The Authority publishes its data wherever possible as part of its commitment to widening its evidence base and maximising access to its data. Many of these datasets are already publicly available on the Knowledge Junction open repository – including data on foodborne zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistance and the presence of chemicals in food.

EFSA manages a huge amount of data on pathogens, chemicals and other hazards in the food chain in its Data Warehouse. Much of this data has been made available to the public through web reporting tools, such as tables, reports, graphs, maps and dashboards. An example is an interactive data visualisation tool showing resistance of animals and humans to antimicrobials and bacteria found in food.

The Data Warehouse also hosts OpenFoodTox, a compilation of toxicological information on every chemical assessed by EFSA and included in already published scientific opinions.

Engagement with stakeholders

EFSA listens to the views of outside parties and fosters active and constructive engagement with its stakeholders. Many stakeholder groups have a close interest in EFSA’s work – from the food industry to environmental and consumer groups.

EFSA maintains a list of registered stakeholders and proactively seeks their input and encourages exchange of views. All registered stakeholders meet once a year at EFSA’s Stakeholder Forum.

A successful example in this regard is the establishment of the EU Bee Partnership, designed to improve data sharing on bee health. The partnership was the key outcome of a symposium organised by EFSA as part of last year’s Bee Week. Since then, a stakeholder group representing beekeepers, farmers, NGOs, veterinarians, academia, industry, producers and scientists has been working to agree the terms of reference that will guide the work of the partnership.

EFSA conference

EFSA is currently reflecting on how to further engage with citizens. In this context, it hosted a broad debate on how organisations, such as national food safety agencies, research institutes, international organisations and EU bodies, can stay relevant in a changing world. Putting risk assessment into context was the big theme of the EFSA 2018 conference, ‘Science, Food, Society’, which took place in Parma from the 18 to 21 September. Discussions ranged from the more familiar new horizons in risk assessment science to relatively new topics, such as engaging and communicating with society and developing expertise for the future.

Good science is not enough

Producing good science today is not enough on its own. Risk assessments should also be explicit about value judgements, be framed by clear policy goals and address scientific uncertainties. Evidence and data used should be accessible and effectively communicated.

A paradigm shift in testing

The current approach is too resource-intensive, not always reproducible and mostly animal-based – something that citizens are increasingly concerned about. Speakers at the conference discussed the significance of a paradigm shift with the ultimate goal of delivering testing strategies to enable reliable, animal-free hazard and risk assessments.

Science and society

Public controversies about science are now openly debated, often without expert mediation. Scientists and science communicators need to be more aware of how context, language and cognitive biases can influence the communication process.

Expertise of the future

In the coming years, organisations, agencies and public service in general will face major challenges, such as budgetary cuts and growing societal demands. More needs to be done to improve cooperation, communication and sharing of expertise.

Input from the conference and the proposal that followed the EU citizens’ initiative will provide useful insights to help shape the EFSA strategy for 2021–2027. ‘Collaboration, multidisciplinary science and engagement are the key factors for success,’ according to EFSA’s Executive Director. Exciting times lie ahead.

Barbara Gallani, Head of Communication Engagement and Cooperation Department,

European Food Safety Authority, Via Carlo Magno 1A, 43126 Parma, Italy

Email Barbara.GALLANI@


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